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April 2, 2012

The Happiness Mindset: 6 Truths

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” –Howard Thurman

Before I started getting into positive psychology, I had 2 thoughts about happiness:

1) Happiness was some cliche concept that had very little actual meaning. It was for the “cheery” people (you know the ones I am talking about), who radiate sunshine and are always “up.” I knew that I didn’t radiate sunshine and I actually didn’t care to. I thought, If I have to expend that much energy radiating sunshine on other people, I’ll just skip it. It looks too tough. In this sense, I thought happiness was all about how you made other people feel. Happy people were the ones you went to when you were sad.

2) Happiness was something you either had or you didn’t. It was fixed and depended on your circumstances. Did I receive a good grade on an exam? Then yes, I had permission to be happy. Did I have a flat tire this morning on the way to work? Then, of course I couldn’t be in a state of happiness. My level of happiness depended 100% on what happened to me. It was outside of me.

Well, once I started studying positive psychology, it became a lot clearer that happiness was much more than the above, and in fact, was nothing like the above scenarios. I was surprised to learn the following truths about happiness, either through research or experience, and since I’ve applied these truths, well…I am happier than ever. It is easy, all it takes is a mind shift and a little practice. Now you try!

1) Happiness is indeed a mindset.

One that you actually choose and create for yourself. One that is not dependent on making other people happy or garnering approval. In fact, your level of happiness has nothing to do with what other people do or say (even though we feel like it does). We can never “capture happiness” via others’ actions or affirmation.

2) A positive person is not happy in every moment.

Things come up (like a flat tire) that make us upset, disappointed, angry, hurt, etc. It is important to feel those emotions in those moments. However, the difference is that someone in a generally-positive mindset does not see the incident as defining their state of mind (e.g. “Of course I’m the one to get a flat tire, I have the worst life everrrr!”) On the contrary, they feel anger in the moment, but then use understanding to get beyond it: “Ugh, this sucks. I hate flat tires. Oh well, I guess I need to get it taken care of. Hopefully my boss will be understanding of my coming in late to work. At least that tire won’t get flat for a while once I get a new one on there.” See the difference? There is a turn-around to positive, even if it is a very small positive. A silver lining moment.

3) Happiness isn’t attained via a single moment of success or even the actual achievement of a goal.

Yes, attainment is fun and successes feel amazing. But they are unsustainable. Research shows that reaching a goal is actually more associated with relief than with sustained happiness. The level of elation you feel at winning your competition eventually wanes. If you compete, you know that once you win your show, now the real work starts–holding down your title! There is an amazing feeling of success and achievement in the moment, but is always fleeting. So how do you sustain happiness?

4) In order to create sustained happiness, you must feel a sense of purpose on a journey towards something bigger.

When people say, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” they are (partially) right. Only partially because a journey to nowhere does not elicit the same positive feelings as a directed journey. In “Happier” by Tal Ben-Shahar, he explains that the happiest people are the ones who focus their energy towards some end-goal and are working towards something meaningful. This is often why many competitors will report feeling great during a show prep. Yes, they are tired or hungry, but overall, they are in a very positive mental state because they are working towards a bigger goal. The show itself is just the icing on the cake, as many report. But, it is the journey that elicits the greatest feelings of fulfillment (post-show blues are a different animal altogether, one that we won’t get into right now :))

5) Feelings of deep fulfillment start with gratitude.

I used to think gratitude was another cliche concept, some esoteric thing that people just said, and really it had no meaning, for me at least. Ben-Shahar notes that the happiest people (those who report the highest levels of personal fulfillment) experience gratitude in the present and for the past. They appreciate what they have, who they have and what they have experienced. They are also hopeful for the future.

In the last 12 months, gratitude has become a daily practice for me. Ironically, I have practiced it to the point that I am actually appreciative of everything–good AND bad–that comes my way. In fact, I am even more grateful for the obstacles and struggles that I experience, because I trust that they are my opportunities for growth. I cannot learn and grow as an individual without learning from the bad stuff. I love my mess-ups! And I choose to be grateful and learn from them.

6) Happiness is a science!

I recently read “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal and it was fascinating (highly recommend for all your crazy female dieters out there! lol!). In the book, she goes through how feelings of happiness present in the brain. People who pursue pleasure-seeking activities like eating, drinking, gambling, smoking, watching TV for hours, video games, shopping excessively, etc are using surges of dopamine (neurotransmitter associated with reward) to get a fleeting “high” off the activities. But they are just that–fleeting (e.g. the reason the thrill of shopping usually end with feelings of “meh” when you get home). We chase these behaviors for their promise of fulfillment, but they do not deliver.

Activities that have been shown in research to actually increase happiness & fulfillment (by eliciting feelings of relaxation, recharge, etc via GABA, serotonin, oxytocin, etc) include reading, meditation, stretching/yoga, walking outside, listening to music, sleeping, talking with a friend or family member, creative outlets like drawing, knitting or gardening, etc. Take 5, 10, 30 minutes a day to engage in one of these and watch as your personal feelings of calm, relaxation and even motivation begin to increase naturally.

When I started with the practice of positive thinking, I was not good at it. In fact, I thought it was garbage. But I was also motivated by the fact that I was not in a happy place, and something needed to change. So I tried, just a little. And then I tried a little more. And then I practiced even more, and eventually, it became easier. I was no longer pushing the boulder up the hill anymore, it was moving on its own.

So, are you going to CHOOSE positivity today? For yourself? Without looking to another for affirmation? Without depending on circumstance to “make” you happy? Try it! You have nothing to lose, and your whole personal sense of fulfillment to gain.

Related: 4 Lessons in stick-to-it-ness: practice, challenges, victimhood & gratitude 

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